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3 reasons everyone defending Bill Cosby should be ashamed
Whoopi Goldberg, Rush Limbaugh, and Glenn Beck have all had Cosby’s back. Here’s why that’s so troubling.
It’s not a great time to be a Bill Cosby fan.
Following a leaked bit from Hannibal Buress, detailing the various allegations of sexual assault that have been leveled against Cosby overtime, renewed interest in the topic has swept the country. Over the past couple of weeks, people have reopened the book on Cosby’s past, and several more women have even come forward to add to the charges against him. By now, the total number of women that have accused Cosby of rape is up to 15.
Nevertheless, there are some out there who still defend him. While we obviously live in a free country, and anyone has the right to voice support for Cosby that wants to, this is an increasingly difficult proposition. Taking everything into account, there are several reasons why the chief defenses of Cosby simply don’t work.
1) Consent is consent is consent.
While interviewing one of Cosby’s accusers, Joan Tarshis, CNN’s Don Lemon uncomfortably brought up several specific details of the alleged assaults, asking, “Because I know some of you—and you said this last night, that he—you lied to him and said, ‘I have an infection, and if you rape me, or if you do—if you have intercourse with me, then you will probably get it and give it to your wife…’ And you said he made you perform oral sex.”
When Tarshis confirmed this, Lemon unfortunately decided to get even more specific in his line of questioning, by responding, “You know, there are ways not to perform oral sex if you didn’t want to do it.” He then went on to discuss using one’s teeth as a defense measure.
For Tarshis’ part, she told Lemon that possibility “didn’t even enter my mind,” and she also mentioned being “kind of stoned at the time.”
Though Tarshis answered Lemon’s various inquiries extremely diplomatically, her recollection also demonstrated why his questions were so completely misguided in the first place. It’s a well-known fact that sexual assault is traumatizing enough where, in the moment of the act, a victim can be too scared to actually say anything. Tarshis might not have directly turned down Cosby’s advances of oral sex, but not turning him down isn’t the same thing as saying “yes.”
What’s more, Tarshis was drugged during the encounter, which surely distorted the experience for her, making it confusing as to if or how she could say now.
Lemon’s suggestion, meanwhile, that she could’ve attacked Cosby is somewhat ludicrous, not only for the aforementioned reasons, but because in a situation like that, with an intimidating, older man like Cosby, fear (not to mention the drugs he gave her) would’ve most likely prevented her from reacting aggressively. That’s not to say she couldn’t have, but it’s unfair to expect someone’s mindset to automatically defer to “fight or flight.” Tarshis’ instincts would’ve been compromised, and her self-defense mechanisms were undoubtedly thrown off assuming this man, whom America loves, whom she was thrilled to have met, suddenly started acting like a monster.
This is why we’re finally exploring affirmative consent laws like California’s SB-967, designed to curb campus sexual assault. In all fairness to Lemon, he has since apologized for his insensitive choice of words. But what Lemon missed in the first place is that it doesn’t matter what kind of sex it is, the issue is whether Tarshis was forced to perform oral sex against her will, which, if her story is indeed true, she clearly was.
Trying to define what is and isn’t rape is a slippery slope. When Whoopi Goldberg (another Cosby defender) said that the charges against Roman Polanski weren’t “rape-rape” back in 2009, she unwittingly personified this very problem.
For the record, whatever Goldberg meant by the term “rape-rape,” Polanski’s actions still qualify as rape under any kind of intelligent definition. But more importantly, Goldberg’s assertion that there are different degrees of severity to what rape is belabors the idea that any unwanted sexual actions are inherently wrong. As long as consent was not given, rape is a fair description, and should be recognized by society as such.
2) Just because it happened a long time ago, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.
Perhaps one of the stranger candidates to come forward and defend Cosby is Rush Limbaugh, the famously conservative radio host. Limbaugh came to Cosby aid by saying that what’s past is past, telling his audience, “It’s not like he did it yesterday.”
Unsurprisingly, Limbaugh also felt the need to bring race into the equation: “And then I had to stop and remember, Bill Cosby has numerous times in the recent past given public lectures in which he has said to one degree or another that black families and communities had better step up and get hold of themselves and not fall prey to the forces of destruction that rip them apart. And basically he started demanding that people start accepting responsibility. And the next thing you know he is the nation’s biggest rapist, as far as CNN is concerned.”
So basically, in Rush Limbaugh’s world, being a rapist is OK as long as you’re also critical of the black community.
However, Limbaugh’s comments about race and the media aside, the most troubling aspect of this whole rant is his casual remarks about the history of the accusations against Cosby. More or less, he states that enough time has gone by now that we should give the guy a pass on whatever crimes he may have committed. Of course, it is true that the statute of limitations for Cosby’s charges have passed, a fact which accuser Barbara Bowman says is a major failure on the part of our legal system.
Regardless of whether Cosby should be arrested, however, the question at stake here is, should he be let off the hook. And the answer, if Cosby’s accusers are telling the truth, is a definite no.
It’s unlikely Limbaugh is the only person out there who sees Cosby as deserving of our collective forgiveness. We’re talking about Cliff Huxtable here. America’s dad. Up until a few weeks ago, Cosby was a kindly, harmless grandfather type in the eyes of most Americans. Accepting that isn’t the full picture is difficult. But if Cosby is guilty, it’s key to remember that our acceptance is not even a fraction as difficult as the pain he put his victims through over the years.
And if anything, the amount of time separating Cosby’s alleged crimes and today actually makes him look more guilty. Talking about the trouble Bowman had getting people to believe her on The View, Whoopi Goldberg wondered, “Perhaps the police might’ve believed it. Or the hospital, where you go—and don’t you do a kit when you say someone has raped you? Isn’t that the next step once you make an allegation?”
Goldberg is correct, except that rape kits only became standard procedure in 2005, following the Violence Against Women Act. We may not treat victims very well in this country today, but sadly, we used to treat them much worse, and there’s no guarantee that the mechanisms in place to put criminals behind bars would’ve held up when Bowman first accused Cosby.
Moreover, it’s unfair to expect a scared young woman to seek out a rape kit every time something like this happens; if the Cosby allegations make one thing clear, it’s that speaking out as a victim is incredibly hard, especially when the person you’re speaking out on is as beloved as Bill Cosby.
Again, the main takeaway here should be that it doesn’t matter how old Cosby is. There’s no one age you reach where every bad thing you’ve ever done goes away with the snap of someone’s fingers. That Cosby is a senior citizen, and an American icon, doesn’t excuse his supposed heinous behavior.
3) Victim blaming won’t fly in Cosby’s case.
Goldberg said that she has “questions” for Bowman. Legendary saxophonist Tony Williams called the accusations “lies.” And Glenn Beck, in an apparent attempt to make his most offensive comment ever, said that the media has been raping Cosby.
What all of these sentiments do, subtly or outrightly, is to take the blame off Cosby and put it on the shoulders of his accusers. Not that this is anything new. As the Daily Dot’s Miri Mogilevsky notes, “There are many more survivors than there are rapists, and rapists get away with it because they are rarely held responsible for their actions. Throughout history, the responsibility for preventing sexual assault has been placed on the shoulders of its potential victims.”
Yet again, Cosby’s case has seen the same victim-blaming tendencies emerge that always do in these situations. “Rather than offering criticism of Cosby’s alleged actions, many have chosen to focus on the behavior of the accusers,” writes CNN’s Marc Lamont Hill. “Why were they alone with him in the first place? What were they wearing? How can they cry rape if they had consensual sex with him in the past? Why didn’t they do more to physically fight him off?… Still, when such questions are raised… we reinforce one of the dominant narratives of rape culture: ‘If you get raped, it’s at least partially your own fault.’”
But the biggest fallacy tied to the victim blaming going on in Cosby’s case is the idea that somehow Cosby’s accusers are going after him for their own benefit. “It should be paramount in our minds that not a single one of these women has anything material to gain by telling her story,” states Flavorwire’s Sarah Seltzer. “In fact, many of them, despite their numbers and the similarities to their stories, will still be pilloried by fans of the comedian, accused of some sort of nefarious scheme for personal gain.”
And why would these women risk being scrutinized, hated, and blamed if they didn’t feel they had to? The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates summed it up perfectly when he wrote, “The heart of the matter is this: A defender of Bill Cosby must, effectively, conjure a vast conspiracy, created to bring down one man, seemingly just out of spite.”
By this point, the amount of evidence against Cosby is so overwhelming, it’s nearly impossible to look the other way. People can blame the victims all they want, but that means that 15 separate women all thought it would be a good idea to make up similar stories about being raped by the same guy. And more than that, they did so without having anything to gain. This isn’t an isolated incident, involving one disturbed fan (not that allegations of rape should be taken lightly under any circumstances.) This is a massive web, that suggests the repeated and methodical modus operandi of an experienced sexual predator.
Victim blaming comes easy where celebrities are concerned, particularly celebrities who are as nationally respected as Bill Cosby. “We say our heroes were antagonized,” writes AL.com’s Edward T. Bowser. “We claim the victims are just looking for a payday. The accusers have to be at fault. We can’t see our heroes as less than perfect.” Except that we’re all less than perfect, and it’s time to stop confusing our heroes’ personal lives with the merits of their work. No one is accusing Cliff Huxtable, they’re accusing Bill Cosby. Because while Bill Cosby created one of the greatest sitcoms of all time, the greatness of that sitcom has nothing to do with his personal life.
It’s fair to question whether, as a black man, Cosby is being treated harsher than Woody Allen or Roman Polanski were amidst their own sex scandals. But even if you feel that the media is being unfair to him, Cosby’s defenders still have hardly any legs left to stand on at this point.
Rape is among the most serious of accusations, and it’s no wonder many would rather defend Cosby than face the facts. But after 15 allegations, it might be time to stop covering our eyes and our ears, and shouting over the din just because it’s unpleasant.
Chris Osterndorf is an entertainment reporter and movie critic based in Los Angeles. He holds a degree in cinema from Chicago’s DePaul University. His work has appeared on the Daily Dot, Mic, the Script Lab, Salon, the Week, xoJane, and more.